Masks, tension and being upside down

This week we’ve had our first encounter with masks, neutral masks to be precise, although we’re not supposed to call them “neutral”, a word which apparently doesn’t have the correct connotations for our purposes. They looked slightly like these although those look rather too wide-eyed and smiley compared with what we used.

I enjoyed the mask work I’ve done before and having not used them for a few months it was a pleasure to put one on again. There’s something freeing about them, in the way you no longer worry about your expression but about your body. Our only task so far was to wake up, as if in a cave that we’ve been sleeping in for thousands of years, make our way to the cave mouth and look out over a landscape.

I can fight the literal part of me and avoid thinking about the impracticalities of sleeping for a thousand years, but I still found it a slightly annoying exercise. I think it was the unwarranted air of reverence that some people seemed to have. The masks and the silence did create an interesting and calm atmosphere, but it often went too far as if this was some kind of miraculous spiritual awakening and we were looking out upon a realistic but epiphanic vision of an untouched world. Oh please. They’re just masks and we’re just acting.

Another class had a better effect on me. We began looking at the “Seven Levels of Tension”. Level 1 has the body completely relaxed, heavy, uncommunicative, lying down or shuffling slowly around (although when I saw the levels covered in a Complicite workshop earlier in the year, the first level only involved lying on the floor). Level 2 was apparently described by Lecoq as “Americans on the beach” — walking with relaxed hips and shoulders, loose with little tension, more communicative but mostly vowels. Taking it easy.

Level 3, the Economic, was what I found most interesting. There’s enough tension to keep the body controlled, but movement is careful, simple, restrained. It’s very typically British or Japanese; polite, with a possible undercurrent of something else happening beneath. Still no conflict. It’s some Beckett or Pinter, men in suits calmly saying absurd things to one another. I loved this and really want to look at it more. Further levels to come next week.

Finally, acrobatics. I’m just not built to be upside down. Today I tried the beginnings of headstands (keeping legs tucked in, rather than pointing straight up) and the backward rolls that most people mastered last week. I guess it’s just practice, but if I’m upside down (in a headstand or part-way through a roll) I have no idea what my body is doing. If I need to shift my weight or move some limbs in a particular fashion I have no conception of how to do it. All my body wants to do, while upside down, is collapse and get upright again as soon as possible.

I managed a few backward rolls, on a slope to make it easier but they felt, and probably looked, painfully clunky. Then it all went pear-shaped and I couldn’t get anywhere. I can’t describe the frustration. I want to do it but it feels so wrong. Practice, practice.


  • Hello there, Phil-

    So glad you took the time to write a blog while you were studying in Paris. Many of us kept notebooks, but mine are spotty at best, and there are huge holes in the books and in my memory. So, cheers for your efforts.

    One thing I differ with you on though, I think it actually was a spiritual journey you were undertaking.

    Those masks, that work, it wasn't just an acting exercise, it was, in a sense, an initiation of sorts into a world of creativity and profound vision. Simple flaps of leather pounded 50 years before by the hands of Satori. A wooden form of the mask is carved and the leather is shaped onto the form, it’s worked and hammered into a perfect impression. Amledo Sartori, collaborated with many of this century's great theatre figures: Giorgio Strehler, Bertolt Brecht, Jean Louis Barrault, and of course, Jacques Lecoq.

    Under Lecoq's direction those very same masks you wore were worn by myself, Julie Taymore, Simon McBurney, Ariane Mnouchkine, members of PigIron, Theatre de le Jeune Lune, the founders of the Del'Arte school in California, and thousands of others actors from across the world.

    Clearly every person's experience is different, but when I wore those masks I felt that great tradition moving through me with an incredibly astonishing force. I was not only enraptured, I was humbled.

    All the best,


  • Hi Shawn,

    I wasn't studying in Paris -- I was at LISPA in London -- so the masks I wore weren't worn by any of those people as far as I know.

    I'm also not big on the whole "spiritual journey" idea -- all a bit hand wavy for my rational brain and I didn't feel any of that history while wearing the masks.

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Wednesday 15 November 2006, 3:57pm

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15 Nov 2006 at Twitter

  • 5:51pm: Watching 'Pump Up the Volume', a history of house, while updating Pepys' Diary.
  • 5:35pm: Realised we have all the ingredients after all, so no shopping required. On with this week's Pepys...
  • 5:29pm: Forgot I was going to go to Waitrose. Eek, better dash.
  • 5:02pm: Creating yet another bloody social network. Why do I have to do this every few months, with the same people. WHY!?

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